Custody and Caring

BIOLOGY is not destiny, and nurture sometimes takes precedence over nature.

Those are the messages a Florida judge sent last week when he ruled that 14-year-old Kimberly Mays, who was switched at birth with another baby, could remain with the man who has raised her.

Calling Robert Mays the "psychological parent" of Kimberly, Judge Stephen Dakan of the Sarasota County Circuit Court denied visitation rights to Ernest and Regina Twigg, her biological parents. He declared that they "have no legal interest in or right to" the teenager and ruled that they must honor her wish never to see them again.

The decision clears the way for Mr. Mays and his wife, Darleena, to adopt Kimberly.

Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding this case, the ruling cannot be construed as a broad revision of adoption law. But it does represent an upgrading of the voice of the child in courts, recognizing that children have rights and feelings that must be respected. It treats Kimberly as a "mature minor" capable of making responsible choices.

Wisely, Judge Dakan stopped short of granting her the "divorce" she had requested. Outside of marriage, divorce becomes a metaphor. Although it makes a headline-grabbing term, it lends melodrama and sensation to child-custody cases, heating up the issues rather than clarifying them.

Just hours after Judge Dakan's ruling in Sarasota, an appeals court across the state in Daytona Beach ruled in another parent-child "divorce."

It declared that minors cannot sue on their own to terminate their parents' rights. But the court upheld the case of Shawn Russ, who was known as Gregory K. when he "divorced" his mother last year.

Custody cases represent one of the most heart-wrenching areas of the law, with consequences for generations to come. Terminating parental rights not only denies parents contact with their child but perhaps with their future grandchildren as well. These factors must weigh heavily on a judge as he or she tries to determine what is in the best interest of the child.

Kimberly's legal ordeal has stretched out over five years of her young life. May reporters, photographers, and Hollywood agents now leave her alone, allowing her to establish a normal teenage life with the only family she has ever known - the nurturing parents she has fought so long to be able to call her own.

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